Friday, May 20, 2016

Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0

Arsenal went into the game as heavy favourites at odds of 1/8 against already relegated Aston Villa at the Emirates on the final day of the 2015/16 season. A point would secure an automatic qualification for the Champions League for the 20th consecutive season, but our target was to take all three points to overtake Tottenham to the second place in case Newcastle pulled off a shock victory over our local rivals. Perhaps the Gunners' emphatic win was not all that surprising, although they did their best to make it a hard viewing for us as usual, but the most astounding part of the story was Tottenham's capitulation in their 5-1 defeat against 10 men. When Sunderland sent their arch-rivals to relegation on Wednesday night, we thought our hopes of clinching the second place had all but faded. After all, however, Newcastle players' and fans' desire to convince Rafa Benitez to stay with their club seemed to have outstripped Spurs' determination to finish above their north London rivals.

Arsene Wenger made four changes from the side that started in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. Mesut Özil, who missed the trip to the northwest through a slight hip problem, was restored to his usual No. 10 role at the expense of Alex Iwobi, who dropped to the bench. Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, who were both impressive in the U-21s' promotion play-off final on Tuesday night, formed the central midfield partnership for the first time since their injuries in November. As some fans were becoming tired of the Elneny-Ramsey pairing in the middle of the park, this was a refreshing change. Jack Wilshere earned his first start since the final day of the last season. Meanwhile, to our sadness, Danny Welbeck was ruled out for 9 months after having surgery in the wake of a knee injury sustained during the Man City game.

Among the subs' bench were David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi, Joel Campbell, and Mikel Arteta. The club captain was lucky enough to be given a chance to make his last appearance in an Arsenal shirts as he, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini were to leave the Club at the end of the season when their contracts expire. Theo Walcott missed the final game of the season all together through a hamstring problem. After the match, Wenger stated that the England forward would be available for the Euro 2016 should he be called up to the England squad on Monday, but with Roy Hodgson in the stand on this day, Theo's absence probably put a nail in his coffin as far as his participation in the Euro 2016 is concerned.

Arsenal started the game with intent. Within 5 minutes of kick-off, we were 1-0 up thanks to Giroud's free header. The news was welcomed that Tottenham were trailing at St. James' Park, but we had to make sure first that we would take all three points from our game. As the Gunners struggled to take chances, Villa looked increasingly dangerous on the break. Arsenal dominated the game, but their intricate style of play frustrated us once again.

The game grew even more agonizing in the second half. Chances went begging and passes went astray. Substitute Elneny had a gilt-edged chance to score, but he volleyed high over the bar. Meanwhile, Lamela's strike at St. James' Park in the 60th minute looked to have signaled Tottenham's comeback, followed by Newcastle's goalscorer, Mitrovic's sending-off in the 67th minute. Despite our anxiety, 10-men Newcastle scored their third goal to put the game to bed. Now we really had to get our job done. With just 12 minutes remaining in normal time, relief was finally brought to us as Giroud met Özil's cut-back from the byline at the near post. The team celebrated it emphatically, with everybody running towards Rosicky. 2 minutes later, Giroud completed a hat-trick after being released by Bellerin's inch-perfect through ball.

Newcastle assured us that there would be no coming back of Tottenham as they added 2 goals in quick succession to make it 5-1 with 4 minutes to go. We were now enjoying the game to the full extent. Mikel Arteta and Joel Campbell were brought on in the 87th minute for the former to bid a farewell as he had decided to hang up his boots. In stoppage time, Alexis laid the ball on for Areta, whose fierce shot cannoned off the crossbar before it hit the goalkeeper and crept over the line. Arteta claimed the goal, although it was technically Bunn's own goal, but it was a dramatic ending to an amazing game.

The final whistle was blown, which was a cue for St. Totteringham's Day celebration. Never mind finishing above them, we once resigned to accept the prospect of our bitter rivals winning the league during the season. A lot of us admitted that they are a good team, which makes their collapse in the final few weeks all the more incredible.

All in all, it was a much better final day of the season than we braced ourselves for. Petr Cech won the 2015/16 Golden Glove outright with his 16th clean sheet. Mesut Özil finished the season at top of the assist table in Europe's 5 top-flight leagues with 19 assists. It was a shame that he fell short of Thierry Henry's league record (20), but there is always another season. With more clinical finishers in the team next season, he will have a good chance of setting a new record. Above all, Arsenal ended the season second in the league, the highest finish in 11 years. We have also achieved an automatic qualification for the Champions League, which means that we don't need to go through a tricky qualifying round or face fixture congestion as soon as a new Premier League season has kicked off.

We finished the season on a high, but that cannot disguise the fact that this was a disappointing season for us with many lost opportunities We fell behind the champions Leicester City by 10 points, which was not good enough. After the match, Wenger hailed the team spirit that allowed Arsenal to finish second, but that team spirit should have seen a more solid run-in. We finished the season on an unbeaten run of 10 league games, but we shouldn't have dropped points in those four games of the five we drew during the current run.

We have now two major tournaments coming up during the summer, the Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario. Hopefully, all our players involved in the competitions will come back in good shape and have a good rest afterwards. Let's hope that we will do some good business in the summer transfer market as well. Wenger has acknowledged the fact that we need to sign outfield players this summer as three midfielders are set to leave the club, while we will be without Danny Welbeck for almost a season (On the other hand, he might say that Yaya Sanogo, Chuba Akpom and Jon Toral are just like new signings). The boss should know that the current squad is far from adequate to challenge for the title next season, when all other clubs are set to have significant reinforcement.

Players ratings

Cech: 6
With Aston Villa registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do. When he was called upon, it was his defenders (Koscielny and Monreal) who came to rescue.

Bellerin: 7
Provided an assist for Giroud's third goal by releasing him with a long through ball. Made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Gabriel: 6

Beaten by Jordan Ayew twice. He has learnt little this season. With Per Mertesacker not getting any younger nor faster, we need a new experienced centre-back. 

Koscielny: 7

Our best defender throughout the season. Did well to make a clearance off the line, arriving just in time. Made 1 tackle, 7 interceptions, and  5 clearances.

Monreal: 7
Rarely troubled defensively, but made a crucial interception to Sinclair's pass in the box. Claimed an assist for the opener with a cross thanks to Aston Villa's atrocious marking.

Cazorla: 7

Looked as if he had never been away. We sorely missed him for the last 5 months. His return to fitness came too late for him to earn a place in Spanish Euro 2016 squad.

Coquelin: 7
Encouraged by his offensive contribution to U-21s' play-off win, he made 2 key passes. Also made 1 tackle and 5 interceptions. 

Wilshire: 6
Proved his match fitness with nothing eye-catching. He had a great chance to score when Alexis' cross found him unmarked at the far post, but he couldn't put his shot on target with his right foot. Replaced by Elneny in the 67th minute.

Özil: 8
Claimed an assist for Giroud's second goal. Created 4 chances for his team mates. If Alexis had converted those 2 chances created by Özil for him, the German playmaker could have set a new Premier League assist record.

Alexis: 8

Had 5 shots, one of which was on target. Created 4 chances for his team mates. Great to see him finally rediscover last season's form.

Giroud: 9
Arsenal fans chosen Man of the Match in the second game in a row, after breaking his 15-game goal drought last weekend. Completed a hat-trick with three totally different types of goals: a header, a sliding-in at the near post, and a one-on-one with the keeper after latching onto a long through ball. Statistically, this was his best season in an Arsenal shirt with 24 goals in all competition, including 16 in the Premier League. He may not be as bad as some think, but we desperately need another potent striker we can rely on when Giroud is having a goal drought.


Elneny: 6
Replaced Wilshire in the 67th minutes. Made 21 passes with a 100% accuracy, but he really should have scored. Had 2 shots, both of which were off target.

Arteta: 6
Came on for Cazorla in the 87th minute. What a memorable appearance to end his career! It may not have been recorded as his goal, but he had a huge hand in Arsenal's 4th goal. Had 1 shot, which was on target, and made 1 key pass. He was reportedly offered three options by Arsenal. Where he will start his coaching career is yet to be seen.

Campbell: 6
Replaced Ozil in the 87th minute. Little involvement in the game with 7 touches to his name.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Manchester City 2 Arsenal 2

The significance of this match could have been much different. At the beginning of the season, or in fact, at the start of the year, this match was regarded as a title decider by many. Since then, both sides have faded away from the title race. Amid the disappointment of the fans, this encounter still presented some importance for both  sides. Going into the game, third-placed Arsenal were 3 points ahead of fourth-placed Man City, whose reaction to their limp performance in their Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid was under the spotlight. We knew a win at the Etihad would guarantee our place in next season's Champions League without going through the increasingly difficult play-offs. After Tottenham's 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Monday night and resulting confirmation of Leicester City's crowning as Premier League champions, you could sense that Arsenal players' ambition had been turned to a second-place finish. To encourage their belief, the Spurs succumbed to a 2-1 defeat by Southampton earlier in the day, throwing away the lead again. This should have served as an extra motivation for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger made two forced changes from the starting XI who played in a 1-0 victory over a relegation-threatened Norwich side at the Emirates last Saturday. Gabriel replaced Per Mertesacker, whose season was over after suffering a hamstring injury during the narrow victory. Mesut Ozil missed out on a trip to the northwest due to a slight hip problem. Danny Welbeck came in for the German playmaker, deployed on the left wing, with Alex Iwobi in the No. 10 role. Much to the fans' displeasure, Wenger once again stuck with Olivier Giroud. Among the subs  were David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, and Joel Campbell.

It was believed that Arsenal had a blueprint for the success at the Etihad Stadium. Everybody thought that Wenger would copy the template of their 2-0 victory in last season's corresponding fixture or a 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium earlier this season, in which the Gunners conceded possession and attacked on the break. However, Arsenal's starting line-up on this day looked too cavalier, with Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey in central midfield. Was Wenger carried away with the prospect of finishing second after the news of Tottenham's loss?

Our fear soon materialised. Man City started brightly and took a deserved lead in the 8th minute. It was a familiar story. We didn't close down. Elneny was deceived by Aguero, with Koscielny behind the Egyptian just watching Aguero's shot pass him. It was disappointing to see a goalkeeper of Cech's calibre beaten at his near post.

However, Arsenal fought back to equalise within seconds. Giroud headed an Elneny corner into the roof of the net. We hoped that the goal had woken up our team, but no. This was going to be a long late afternoon. Danny Welbeck's injury didn't help. He wasn't moving well since an early knock, but he could no longer continue, giving way to his England team-mate, Jack Wilshere, in the 24th minute.

Arsenal managed to end the first half with parity, but City took the lead again through De Bruyne's goal. It was a carbon copy of Bolasie goal a couple of weeks ago. Once again, we failed to close down and Cech was beaten at his near post.

Wenger made an early substitution by his standards to introduce Theo Walcott in place of Iwobi. Theo made an uncustomary impact when he came on. In the 68th minute, Arsenal equalised once again with Giroud turning to  provider with his brilliant flick. Alexis finished Giroud's lay-off with composure. This was a great example of Arsenal's swift counter-attacking moves. Santi was ready to come on before the goal, but the goal changed Wenger's plan. The Frenchman brought on Coquelin at the expense of Elneny. His thought was clear: if you cannot win, don't lose it.

It was disappointing that we could not fully capitalise on the north London rivals' loss, but the hard-fought point saw us move another step closer to securing next season's Champions League football. The result was far more beneficial to us than the hosts. If Manchester United lose or draw on Tuesday night in the final game at Upton Park, we will secure at least a play-off spot for the next season's Champions League. No matter how other games pan out, a draw with Aston Villa on the last weekend of the season will seal our automatic qualification for the Champions League. Playing in front of their families and loved ones, hopefully, our players will play to their full capacity. Besides, we still have a chance of finishing second, depending on how successful Newcastle  fare against Spurs at St James's Park next Sunday. It was vital to grab a point from this game in order to keep any chance of overtaking Tottenham alive.

Overall, it was another frustrating performance from the Gunners especially the very poor passing, but they deserve the credit for their resilience, fighting back twice to earn a point. Another positive was their efficiency in front of  goal, which has been a problem this season. Arsenal scored 2 goals from their 2 shots on target. The worrying thing was that we only had 5 attempts throughout the game. Hopefully, with Özil's return to the side, we will see more goal-scoring chances created at the Emirates next weekend.

Players ratings

Cech: 5
Beaten at his near post twice, it was a disappointing display from the world-class keeper.

Bellerin: 6
Struggled defensively on the right flank at times. Made 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 clearances.

Gabriel: 6

Some blame Bellerin for De Bruyne's goal, but Gabriel could have done better to stop the Belgian from shooting.

Koscielny: 6

Recovered well from the shaky start. Made 1 tackle, 4 interceptions, and a whopping 10 clearances. 

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Navas' attacking threat. Made 2 tackles, 5 intercept
ions, and 8 clearances.

Elneny: 6

Claimed an assist for Giroud's goal. He has started taking corners and free kicks recently, which is a positive for us. His defensive stats (1 interception and 1 clearance) were disappointing on this day. Replaced by Coquelin in the 76 minutes.

Ramsey: 6
Made 7 tackles, but he was dispossessed too easily and too often for our liking. Covered more ground (10.6 km) than any other Arsenal player but his passing accuracy was poor at 69.1% even when the team's average rate was uncharacteristically low at 70%.    

Alexis: 7
He was having a quiet game until he scored an equaliser. Made 3 tackles, 3 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Iwobi: 5
He was out of his depth. Somebody with more experience, such as Campbell (if Santi was not fully match fit) should have started in his place.

Welbeck: 5

Early retirement due to a knee injury. Keep fingers crossed that it's not too bad.

Giroud: 7
Arsenal fans chosen Man of the Match. Scored his first league goal in 15 games and claimed his 6th league assist. As Wenger stated after the match, the French striker was sharper than he had been in recent games, in one of which Ramsey was seen shouting at him when he didn't make a run for the Welshman's through ball.


Wilshere: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 24th minutes. Great to see him get a chance to prove his fitness. Had a decent game with team highest passing completion rate of 86.7%. 

Walcott: 6
Came on for Iwobi in the 59th minute. Made a few good runs with/without the ball.

Coquelin: 6
Replaced Elneny in the 76th minute to prop up defence. Made 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 clearance.
Made 6 passes with a 50% passing accuracy.